$10M gift spurs restoration at Jefferson’s estate
Posted: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 8:00 pm
WASHINGTON (AP) — One-time slave quarters will be recreated at Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, and more of the Declaration of Independence writer’s living quarters will be restored using a $10 million gift from a philanthropist who has a keen interest in the nation’s history.
Mulberry Row, the community where slaves lived on the Virginia plantation, will be reconstructed with the funds. Monticello officials plan to rebuild at least two log buildings where slaves worked and lived and will restore Jefferson’s original road scheme on the plantation. The gift will also fund the restoration of the second and third floors of Jefferson’s home that are now mostly empty and will replace aging infrastructure.
Businessman David Rubenstein, the co-CEO of The Carlyle Group private equity firm, announced his gift on Friday night. It is one of the largest ever to the Monticello estate.
Archaeologists and historians designing the project will follow a drawing Jefferson made in 1796, describing the material and dimensions of the log structures along Mulberry Row. Over the next two years, they plan to rebuild a structure described as being among “servants’ houses of wood, with wooden chimneys and earth floors.” The 12-by-14-foot dwelling would have housed a single family, representing a shift from barrack-style housing.
It’s believed to have housed members of the extended Hemings family, who held important positions at Monticello. Most historians believe Sally Hemings, a slave, had a relationship with the third president and that he was the father of her six children. In the recreated house, curators may also focus on the life of Hemings’ younger brother John Hemings, who was a highly skilled joiner and cabinetmaker.
“By bringing back the place, we bring back the people, and we’re able to put a face on slavery,” said senior curator Susan Stein. “It’s actually the lives of people.”
Rubenstein told The Associated Press he has become a student of Jefferson in recent years since purchasing several copies of the Declaration of Independence and came to admire the man who wrote that “all men are created equal.” Rubenstein visited Monticello about two months ago and decided he could help with projects the estate’s trustees had planned to better tell Jefferson’s story.
“I think it’s important to tell people the good and the bad of American history, not only the things that we might like to hear,” Rubenstein said. “And the bad of it is that as great as Jefferson was, nobody can deny that he was a slave owner.
“I think if Jefferson were around today, he would say ‘I would like to see Monticello restored as it was.”’
The gift follows major donations Rubenstein has made to preserve U.S. history at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, at the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument in the nation’s capital and elsewhere.
He said he’s driven, in part, by concern that Americans don’t know enough about their history.
Leslie Green Bowman, the president and CEO of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, called Rubenstein’s gift “transformational.” It ranks among the top five gifts in the foundation’s history since it purchased the estate in 1923 and began restoring Monticello for historical tours.
Monticello officials said Rubenstein understood the needs of the historic site when he toured the empty rooms of Jefferson’s house.
“I think his silence said a lot,” said Stein. “He was probably staggered that the refurnishing and restoration had not yet taken place.”
Curators have only been able to restore one upper room as it would have been in Jefferson’s time. Now they can begin restoring the living quarters where generations of Jeffersons lived, where guests stayed and where servants circulated through the house.
Curators also plan to rebuild the plantation’s storehouse for iron where Isaac Granger Jefferson worked as a slave in the 1790s. Jefferson sent him to Philadelphia to learn tinsmithing, and Granger later became one of the most productive nail makers. His memoirs were documented in the 1840s.
Monticello has been studying slavery for decades and has provided descriptions of slave life since 1993. Rebuilding sites where slaves lived and worked on Mulberry Row, though, represents a change to include even more African-American history.
“It’s a huge step forward that we’re including that story as an essential part of Monticello’s history,” Bowman said. “Jefferson did not live here in a vacuum.”
She said Rubenstein’s gift catapults Monticello’s long, painstaking plans for restoration into action. Officials hope to complete most of the projects by the end of 2016.
The addition of two new buildings where slaves lived and worked will change the way visitors see Monticello, Stein said. The focal point now is a beautiful hilltop house, but there are few reminders that it was part of a plantation.
“People will look at Monticello and be reminded of its real history,” Stein said. “Not the history that we imagined but the history that was.”
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Published in The Messenger 4.24.13